‘I Looked Into Putin’s Eyes and This Is What I Saw’

Never-before published photographs of the Russian president in 2000, when he had just come to power.

In May of 2000, I was asked to go to Russia to shoot an exclusive photo essay of Vladimir Putin for a major U.S. news magazine—but no prior arrangements had been made. So, when I arrived in Moscow I asked the press office of the Russian foreign ministry if Putin, who had been appointed only a few months earlier, had any upcoming public appearances.  I was told that he would be making a trip to Kursk, and I could join the Russian press corps that would accompany him. But it was emphasized many times that I would need to abide by strict rules of access.

The day started with some rather perfunctory scenes, then Putin went to a town hall in Kursk to meet with the mayor. Outside, I noticed that there were many Russian security men standing next to a woman with a baby in the crowd. So, I waited, too. And right on cue, as Putin exited the town hall he walked across the square straight to the woman with the baby, within a few feet of my camera.

As I took pictures, I could hear all of the Russian press corps as their feet ran across the square to catch this same moment. I stood my ground, as I was used to doing in this type of situation, and as the first cameraman pushed up next to me I extended a sharp elbow to defend my position—and suddenly heard a person screaming in Russian. Before I knew it, two militia men, both about 6 feet 5 inches tall, literally picked me off the ground and carried me across the square away from the scene. The Russian press spokesman came running up and told them to let me down, but looked at me with a look that clearly said that I had badly broken the rules. My hopes of greater access seemed to be over.

I returned to Moscow by train, extremely disheartened. The following day, I learned that NBC anchor Tom Brokaw, a good friend, was coming to Moscow to interview Putin in the Kremlin. I had previously photographed Mikhail Gorbachev with Brokaw during an interview and immediately called Tom in New York to ask if I could go into the Kremlin with him for his session with Putin.

He agreed and his Moscow producer put my name on the list to accompany Brokaw, only to discover that in Kursk I had elbowed the personal videographer for the last five Russian and Soviet premiers and presidents—exactly the wrong person to upset. I promised I would behave.

The day of the interview, my biggest worry was that the Kremlin cameraman would be present for the interview and might have me thrown out. Hoping to preempt him, I brought signed copies of two of my books. And, yes, the moment we entered the room the first person I saw was him—glaring right at me. The translator approached him as I’d asked her to do, offering my profuse apologies, and handing him the books. He then looked very confused, and came right to me. He told me that since I was such a professional, he wanted to demonstrate his own professionalism and I should wait a few minutes. He soon returned, pinned a red and gold pin on my blazer jacket, and told me that this was a KGB security pin that had been made for the Moscow Olympics in 1980 and there were very few in existence and he wanted me to have it.

A few minutes later, President Putin entered and Brokaw began the interview.

When it was over, Putin asked Brokaw if he would like to join him for tea in his private study. I asked Brokaw if I could go, too, and Tom asked Putin if this would be okay and he said yes—it would be just the three of us and a translator without a television cameraman.

In this small study, tea was served by a lit fireplace and Putin and Brokaw spoke for a while. Then I asked Putin if I could make some portraits of him next to the fireplace, knowing these would be the first exclusive photographs made of Putin since he took power. When he stood up I realized he was very short.

He asked where I had gotten the pin on my jacket, clearly recognizing what it was. I told him, and he giggled, and I was struck by what seemed to be a very awkward, almost childlike laugh, very much in contrast to the imposing presence I’d seen so often on television and in the press.

Putin posed for a good while next to the fireplace, and we shook hands and Tom Brokaw and myself and the NBC team departed from the Kremlin feeling rather victorious for having achieved this first exclusive interview and photo session.

Soon after that, U.S. President Bill Clinton arrived in Moscow and I stayed on to photograph the visit.

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The photographs made during May and early June in Moscow in 2000, were in fact never published. There was never an explanation for this, but having worked for a major news magazine for almost 18 years, I understood that this was the kind of thing that could happen with the ever changing, fast-paced rhythm of the news.

But now that President Trump has met with Putin, it seemed to me this might be the moment to publish them. So many past and present politicians have spoken about what they see when they look in Putin’s eyes. George W. Bush thought he could see the Russian president’s soul.

These photographs taken 17 years ago, when Putin first came to power, will show you what I saw.